There are some very common objections to homeopathy based on the idea that it is ineffective or that there is not science to support it. While I firmly disagree with the notion that 'science' is needed to prove something that relies on faith and trust in God, I understand the culture today and its belief in Scientism has driven many to seek to understand homeopathy as they do allopathy; though they are vastly different. Homeopathy has millions of personal testimonies of its efficacy and the research field for it is growing. Additionally, it is even used by governments as a national system of healthcare in the care of its people.
The Homeopathy Research Institute is a very solid resource for the scientific objections.
Below are some common objections from their site and their response.
This is probably the most frequently quoted, completely inaccurate statement about homeopathy. Homeopathy research is a relatively new field, so it’s true to say that there are not a huge number of studies, but some evidence is very different from no evidence.
By the end of 2014, 189 randomised controlled trials of homeopathy on 100 different medical conditions had been published in peer-reviewed journals1. Of these, 104 papers were placebo-controlled and were eligible for detailed review:
41% were positive (43 trials) – finding that homeopathy was effective
5% were negative (5 trials) – finding that homeopathy was ineffective
54% were inconclusive (56 trials)
How does this compare with evidence for conventional medicine?
An analysis of 1016 systematic reviews of RCTs of conventional medicine had strikingly similar findings2:
44% were positive – the treatments were likely to be beneficial
7% were negative – the treatments were likely to be harmful
49% were inconclusive – the evidence did not support either benefit or harm.
Although the percentages of positive, negative and inconclusive results are similar in homeopathy and conventional medicine, it is important to recognise a vast difference in the quantity of research carried out; chart A represents 188 individual trials on homeopathy, whereas chart B represents 1016 reviews on conventional medicine, each analysing multiple trials.
This highlights the need for more research in homeopathy, particularly large-scale high quality repetitions of the most promising positive studies.
The difference in quantity is also not surprising when one considers the tiny amounts of funding made available for research into ‘complementary and alternative medicine’ (CAM). For example, in the UK only 0.0085% of the total medical research budget is spent on CAM, of which homeopathy is only one example.
There are critics who claim that homeopathy is ‘pseudoscience’ and only non-scientists are interested in the subject.
In fact, scientists in highly respected universities, research institutions and hospitals around the world are carrying out research into homeopathy using the same research techniques as those used to investigate conventional medical treatments.
Homeopathy research is a relatively new field, but the number of articles published in peer reviewed journals has risen significantly over the past 40 years.
This lag behind conventional medicine is hardly surprising when one considers the lack of funding available e.g. in the UK less than 0.0085% of the medical research budget is spent on research into complementary and alternative medicines.1
So in what way is homeopathy ‘unscientific’?
Well-qualified scientists in respected institutions are now carrying out high quality basic research, clinical research and veterinary research in homeopathy, and are reporting positive results which are published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. Therefore the only basis for the argument that it is ‘pseudoscience’ is that we do not know how homeopathy works.
Usually, when a phenomenon is observed which cannot be explained by what ‘science’ already knows, this triggers fresh scientific enquiry – it is not dismissed as ‘unscientific’ purely because it has yet to be understood.
Laboratory experiments have demonstrated that homeopathic medicines are not just sugar pills
Critics of homeopathy point to the fact that homeopathic medicines are so highly diluted that there is ‘nothing in them’.
This comes from the fact that the liquids used to make some homeopathic medicines are diluted beyond the threshold known as Avogadros number (dilution 10-23). This means that the liquid is so highly diluted that you would not expect any molecules of the original substance to remain.
It is these ‘ultra-high dilutions’ (homeopathic medicines above 12c or 24x potency) which attract controversy, because they clearly cannot work in the same way as conventional medical drugs i.e. through molecules interacting directly with the body’s biochemistry.
Researchers around the world are investigating the mechanism of action of these medicines, which is likely to be based in physics rather than chemistry. Although there are various theories being explored, as yet, we do not understand how homeopathic medicines work.
What we do know is that many laboratory studies have shown ultra-high dilution homeopathic medicines having biological effects you would not see if they were ‘just water’ or ‘just sugar pills’, for example:
Adding homeopathic histamine to basophils (white blood cells) can trigger them to release histamine
Homeopathic thyroxine, at the ultra-high dilution of 30x, slows down the rate at which tadpoles turn into frogs 8
Are these results just artifacts from ‘bad science’?
This argument does not hold up to any scrutiny because even experiments with a high methodological standard can demonstrate ultra high dilutions (a.k.a. ‘high potencies’) having effects.1
Why are these results not accepted by some scientists?
So far, no positive result has been stable enough to be reproduced by all researchers every time. Close to 75% of in vitro experiments on ultra-high dilutions show the substance having an effect, and nearly 75% of replications have been positive.1
As scientists gain more experience experimenting on ultra-high dilutions, they are gradually understanding what factors are influencing the results and consequently, reproducibility is improving 9. The basophil and frog experiments described above have proved the most repeatable so far and progress is also being made in finding the most repeatable plant-based experiments.
However, until an experiment is achieved in which every team gets the same effect every time, this field will remain controversial. This is the ongoing challenge for basic science researchers in homeopathy.
The key appears to be in exactly how homeopathic medicines are made
Homeopathic medicines are made from plant, chemical, mineral or animal sources. The original material is diluted, then agitated vigorously (succussed). The number of times this is repeated determines the strength or ‘potency’ of the remedy e.g. a ‘6c’ remedy will have been diluted 1 part in 100 then succussed, six times over.
If you only dilute the substance over and over, of course you are eventually left with an inactive sample which is ‘just water’; it is the added succussion between each step of dilution which appears to imprint information from the original substance, into the water/alcohol it is diluted in.
This idea is supported by experiments which show that unsuccussed dilutions are inactive, but succussed dilutions can cause biological effects, suggesting that this aspect of the manufacturing process is essential in creating homeopathic medicines10.
Exactly what physico-chemical changes succussion causes, and how this enables water to capture information about the substances diluted in it, are the big questions researchers are trying to answer.